A part of every traveller’s soul likes to wander in beaches, and indulge in luxuries because who doesn’t love a bit of pampering? Well, the other half of you wants you to throw away that comfort and seek the true essence of a country. Its people. Its culture. Its history.
If you have a knack to explore ancient sites, dive beyond their remnants, go deep into their roots, and uncover the exciting tales behind them, travel to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
Located in the North Central province of Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa is a city that boasts of immense historical, cultural, and architectural value and is a place you shouldn’t miss!
The easiest way to get to Polonnaruwa from Colombo is by train. But, you can also book a cab, or take the bus to reach there within five hours.
In this itinerary, I have outlined some places to visit in Polonnaruwa that would surely spark your interest, and keep you looking for more.
What you will see as you enter the premises of the Royal Palace is the ruins of what was once a magnificent palace.
Primarily the residence of King Parakramabahu I, the palace has also served many other kings during the era. It has been subjected to many foreign invasions, and you can still see the burnt traces on wooden bricks.
Historical scriptures state this palace to be a massive structure with around 1000 chambers, but only a fragment of that remains today. You can use your imagination and envision how the Royal Palace must have looked like originally, skyscraping the entire area.
Let me tell you a few words about King Parakramabahu I, as you will hear his name many times in the article. Attributed as the most prominent ruler of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, he has immensely contributed to reviving the agricultural sector and built many tanks to preserve water. He was titled as King Parakramabahu the Great for setting the example as a valiant king, great warrior, and a true Buddhist.
Also known as the Council Chamber or ‘Raja Sabwa’ in Sinhala, this is another intriguing site located close to the Royal Palace.
King Parakrambahu used this as a place to hold appointments with people and conduct meetings.
There’s a staircase leading to the audience hall, and you will note two richly decorated moonstones; one at the beginning and one in the middle of the staircase.
Every structure in the Chamber Hall is beautified with carvings, and they bear elements that were considered sacred or important during the period. At the entrance, you will see two lion statues and an inscription stating the functional importance of this structure.
Sri Lanka has been subject to Chola invasions in the latter part of the 9th century, and this is a structure that bears evidence of it.
Interestingly, Shiva Devalaya is the oldest building belonging to the Polonnaruwa city. It also shows the influence of Hinduism on the cultural and architectural details on monuments built afterward.
Shiva Devalaya has been constructed entirely out of stone, and due to its sturdiness, it remains similar to its original condition until today. It’s very interesting to observe the intricate patterns carved on to the stone and guess its resemblance to the Hindu culture.
As the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, Rankoth Vehera gets a fair share of visitors every day. The name of the stupa was derived from its golden pinnacle. It’s a massive structure built with close resemblance to another famous stupa known as Ruwanweli Maha Seya in Anuradhapura.
Initially, there have been four gateways built to enter the stupa from all sides, but only ruins of them can be found today.
You will also note a stone seat near the stupa, and it’s assumed that the king who supervised it sat on it and observed the ongoing construction.
There’s a very old Buddha statue in one of the shrine rooms built around the stupa. You can easily reach the stupa by a tuk-tuk as it is only seven minutes away from the Shiva Devala.
Gal Vihara is one of the frequently visited places by both Sri Lankan and foreign tourists.
Gal Vihara is famous for its significant Buddha statues carved out of granite rocks by renowned sculptors at the time. It has four caves to house each statue known as Cave Vijjadhara, Cave of Reclining Image, Cave of Standing Image, and the Excavated Cave.
It is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it resembles the sophisticated craftsmanship that existed back then.
Due to the sturdiness of these statues, they are found in good condition even today.
The credit of building Gal Vihara as a place of worship for Buddhist devotees goes to King Parakramabahu I. It’s very interesting to observe the intricate details of these statues while enjoying the scenic surrounding.
Known as the Stupa House, Vatadage in Polonnaruwa is another prominent architectural site to visit in Polonnaruwa.
The structure is fascinating to note here. There’s a stupa in the middle, and four Buddha statues surround it. A circular-shaped wall built around them and pillars found around the wall were built to protect the stupa.
Near the entrance, you will see a moonstone decorated with patterned elements. A short flight of stairs will lead you to the stupa, and if you observe close enough, you will notice intricate patterns carved on them too. There are two guard stones on either side of the staircase with carvings of a traditional Sinhalese woman.
Even though there are many temple houses found in different regions in Sri Lanka, this is considered as the best one to date.
Visiting this reservoir is one of the popular activities in Polonnaruwa.
Parakrama Samudra is the largest reservoir built for irrigation activities during the time under the patronage of King Parakramabahu I. It is actually a collection of five reservoirs, and only a part of the entire construction remains today.
Even to date, this reservoir nourishes large acres of paddy field helping Sri Lankan farmers sustain their livelihood.
You can go cycling around the reservoir admiring its beautiful view, while enjoying the fresh breeze.
There are many hotels around, consider stopping at one if you are looking for a place to stay or in need of a short break before resuming travel.
You will also come across a statue of the Parakramabahu the Great along with other ruins believed to be from the palace built near the reservoir in the past.
Even though what you see today is the bare brick surface of the stupa, it was initially painted in white. As it resembled the color of milk (Kiri in Sinhala), it was named as Kiri Vehera.
As the second-largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, this is the only one to have survived 900 years and still retain its original condition.
Many believe this stupa to have housed valuable treasures in the past only to have been stolen by looters. You would find this stupa to be plain in comparison to other decorated stupas in the region. But, this could be because it was built as a learning center for monks and therefore built paying attention to minimalism.
If you head towards the south of Kiri Vehara, you will come across Lankathilaka which is an image house of Buddha built by King Parakramabahu.
Even though the statue of Buddha is not in good condition, it is still worth admiration for its massive size and ornate carvings.
The building is made completely out of bricks, and it is believed to have been twice the size of what’s left today. You will also note carvings of different images on the walls of this building.
If you are wondering about what to do in Polonnaruwa, in addition to visiting temples, you can take a trip to this national park.
Wasgamuwa National Park is located 1 hour and 30 minutes away from Polonnaruwa city, and you can book a cab or a tuk-tuk to get there.
This nature-bound place features an array of interesting wildlife, exotic plant and tree varieties, and rarely-spotted birds.
Gatherings of large herds of elephants are the specialty in the park, and the ideal time period to spot them is between November to May.
You will also encounter other exotic animals like the purple-faced monkey, deer, leopards, buffalos, and sloth bears.
In order to get around the park, you have to book a safari ride at the entrance. This national park is a great place to capture good photographs.
In addition to these, Pabalu Vehera, Potgul Vihara, and Thivanka Image House are some other prominent places to visit in Polonnaruwa.
Even though historic places are the major attractions in the city, you can also make your tour more interesting with a chat with locals and shopping for souvenirs in stores around. You will also come across extensive paddy fields in Polonnaruwa as it’s a major agricultural area in the country.
As Polonnaruwa is situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, you might find it a bit warm. The soft breeze near reservoirs can actually help you cool off.
It is best to wear light clothes that are comfortable to help you travel with ease and get the most out of your visit to Polonnaruwa.
You will also come across king coconut or fruit juice vendors along the road to help you quench the thirst. There are plenty of mini restaurants to eat and take a break in between visiting sites!
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